Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Midwinter Challenge - Holy Supper Part III

I’ll skip over the mechanics of the day before our feast. Basically, it involved making Leek & Potato soup, chopping a variety of vegetables and playing with the Witchlets whilst all the while feeling the house is full - the presence of Nana, Uncle Roy and Aunty Midge is palpable. I keep hearing my Great-Aunt’s voice, laughing, and speaking to her “Brew” - the name she always used for my Uncle. I can’t hear their conversations, I’m just aware of the undercurrent of murmurs, the constant conversation between them. Snippets of laughter punctuate my day, and both the Witchlets turn their heads at times - do they hear them? I don’t ask; if the Witchlets want to tell me anything, they will do.

We’ve told the Witchlets that the Yule Fairy is coming tonight (the Yule Fairy started off life as a way of making sure OCD me got to do the decorations without the “help” of little hands, but she’s developed a life of her own and now has her own mythology - she’s the power behind the Santa’s throne these days) so they are busy wondering what she will bring them, and being “EVERSO GOOD” - and telling me that they are being EVERSO GOOD every five minutes or so. I distract them by teaching Witchlet Two to sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, and she’s soon running around singing “We Wish ‘oo a Mewwy Kissmas an’ a ‘Appy Noo Yeah” which is funny enough, but hearing her go on to sing “So bing us a piggy pudding,” has me in fits. The house is full of family. Eventually The Hubster returns from work. We’re complete, we’re whole. For the first time since I was a child, I get the anticipation and thrill I used to get when we spent Christmas at Nana’s house. She pats my shoulder. She’s pleased.

Hubby baths the Witchlets, then they race downstairs in warm pyjamas, smelling of sweet clean soap and damp hair. We snuggle under two fleece blankets; the blue one is Witchlet One’s, the white one is Witchlet Two’s and I must never forget that or risk being chastised in their high-pitched loud voices. I read them a story by Starhawk: The Rebirth of the Sun. “Circle round, and I’ll tell you a story about when the sun was born again…” It’s a lovely story, and for once they sit and listen quietly, not wriggling or battling with each other.   We light (battery-powered) tealights in lanterns, and take them upstairs to keep vigil for the return of the sun.

Magic is happening, not just to me, not just to the witch. My dear gods, this is happening to all of us. I’m happy and floating, but staying busy in my role as mother, as organiser, as the pivot on which this whole thing hangs.

It takes a while before the Witchlets are calm enough to sleep. They run giggling backwards and forward to each other’s room, jumping into bed with each other, so we have to keep going upstairs and separating them or they will never settle. Eventually they sleep. The Yule Fairy/Mother Witch creeps upstairs and pulls out two wrapped presents to put under the tree. The Yule Fairy is wise; the presents are ones that will keep the Witchlets occupied while I cook in the morning.

Finally, I set the table. Ironed table cloth, new table runner, new place mats. The Yule Log is placed at the end of the table, and I finish decorating it with ivy and fir from the garden. No cutlery, because Witchlet Two delights in licking cutlery - all cutlery, I mean EVERYBODY’S cutlery - so that will be added JUST before we eat.

I’m last to bed. I sit in the silence, basking in the warmth that is the love of my ancestors. For once, I am not a failure. I’ve not disappointed anyone. Not even myself. It feels good.

The morning dawns, and I’m up first. I’m joined within a few minutes by a bouncy three-year old girl with a grin on her face, and my two men - the five year old, and the big one I married, surface next. We go downstairs, turn all the festive lights on, and then they notice the table - “Pretty!” yells Witchlet Two, scrambling up on to a chair to get a better look at the Yule Log. Hands all over it. “Sticky!” she yells, sniffing the fir resin on her hand from the cut end of the log. (That’s my baby witch, getting your hands dirty now, getting your nose, your hands, your excitement into the magic, YEAH BABY!) Finally they notice their presents, and out of a whirlwind of flying paper and ribbons comes the contented mumbles and giggles of Witchlet One with a Mario DS game, and Witchlet Two with a teapot shaped toy café . Hubby prepares to do the obligatory last minute male present shopping, and I descend on the kitchen, brew a pot of tea for me and the ancestors, light candles for The Old Man, Hekate, and the so far absent Old Hag (it’s 13 fucking degrees fucking centigrade out there; this time last year it was minus fucking four. Is she taking a year off? The slacker.) and start cooking.

I have to make bread. The bane of my fucking life, the one thing I fucking can’t fucking do - I think I’ve made about four decent loaves in my life, and too many rocks, door stops, teeth crackers, or squidgy soggy messes. Years ago I gave up and bought a bread maker. Six months of reasonable bread, then it broke. My parents bought me another one when we moved to this house, and I dropped it the first time I got it out of the box, shattering the plastic. If the universe wants me to bake bread with my own hands, I shall bake bread with my own hands. Eventually. (It’s on my to-do list for 2012.) But for now, I cheat - well, a little bit - and make soda bread. Nana chuckles; I think she’s let me off this time.

Soda Bread


170g/6oz wholemeal flour

170g/6oz plain flour

½ tsp salt

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

290ml/½ pint buttermilk (I didn’t use buttermilk, I used natural yoghurt instead)

Preparation method

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6.

Tip the flours, salt and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl and stir.

Make a well in the centre and pour in the buttermilk/yoghurt, mixing quickly with a large fork to form a soft dough. (Depending upon the absorbency of the flour, you may need to add a little milk if the dough seems too stiff but it should not be too wet or sticky.)

Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly.

Form into a round and flatten the dough slightly before placing on a lightly floured baking sheet.

Cut a cross on the top and bake for about 30 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack.

While that was baking, I prepared the duck. I followed a really nice recipe from the delectable Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall (where are your curls Hugh? Grow back the curls!)


Hugh's roast duck recipe

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall from River Cottage Autumn

Few things are more heartening than a roast. Hugh's duck recipe even takes care of gravy - gorgeous.

Hugh: "There's a bit of a knack to roasting a duck but it needn't be too anxiety provoking. Better, I think, to embrace the more old-fashioned English notion of a roast duck, with the skin nicely seasoned and crisp and the meat cooked right through. Like pork, duck meat is flavoursome enough to be appetising even when a little overcooked, and the natural covering of fat that you get with a good farmed duck keeps it lubricated. The crispy skin, of course, is priceless."


1 large, fresh duck, free range and preferably organic, with neck and giblets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the giblet stock/gravy:

The neck and giblets, and wing tips

1 small onion

1 celery stick

1 carrot

A little oil

1 bay leaf

1 small glass of red wine

½ teaspoon redcurrant jelly (optional)


How to make Hugh's roast duck

Preheat the oven to 220°C/Gas Mark 7. If the duck is tied up, untruss it - i.e. cut the strings and gently pull the legs apart, away from the body. This will help the heat to get at them.

2. Cut off the wing tips (the last bony segment) - there's no meat on them and they will boost the flavour of the giblet stock. Make this first: roughly chop up the neck, heart, gizzard and wing tips, plus the onion, carrot and celery. Fry these over a fair heat in a little oil until the meat is nicely browned and the vegetables slightly caramelised. Transfer to a saucepan with the bay leaf, cover with water (about 600ml) and bring to a simmer. Leave at a gentle simmer for about 1¾ hours - i.e. the time it takes to cook the duck.

3. Now tackle the duck. Remove any obvious spare fat from inside the cavity. You can, if you like, turn the duck breast-side down on a board and press hard on the middle of the backbone until you hear a crack, it means that when you turn the bird breast-side up again it sits flatter in the pan, which helps it to cook more evenly.

4. Now, using a needle, (FUCK THE NEEDLE! I sterilised the end of my fox tooth pin and used that!) prick the skin all over the fatty parts at the breast and where the breast joins the leg. Don't prick deeper than is necessary just to pierce the skin. You want the fat to run, but not the juices from the meat. Season the skin lightly with salt and pepper.

5. Put the bird in a roasting tin. Place into oven for about 20 minutes, so the fat starts to run. Then turn the oven down to 180°C/Gas Mark 4, baste the bird and return to the oven.

6. Baste the duck every 20 minutes or so. Check the bird for doneness after about 1½ hours' total cooking time. Poke a skewer into the thickest part of the leg, close to the breast. When the juices runs clear, the bird is done. Tip the bird to pour any fat or juices out of the cavity into the roasting tin and transfer it to a warmed plate or carving tray.

7. Now fix the gravy. Carefully pour off the fat from the roasting tin into a heatproof bowl or dish, leaving the brown juices in the tin. Deglaze the tin with the red wine, scraping to release any tasty browned morsels. Strain the giblet stock and the deglazed pan juices, into a clean pan and boil hard to reduce them to a rich, syrupy gravy. Taste for seasoning, and add a little redcurrant jelly for sweetness, if you like.

8. To carve the bird for 4 people, slice between the legs and breast, then prise off the whole legs, carefully pulling the thighbone away from the body of the bird. Cut each leg in half at the joint between the thigh and the drumstick. Slice each whole breast from the carcass, with the crispy skin attached, then cut each breast into 5 or 6 thick slices. Offer each guest a few slices of breast, with either a thigh or a drumstick. Serve on warmed plates, with the gravy and some roast vegetables.

Hubby came home in the middle of this with a couple of bags of stocking fillers. He popped open the bubbly, made me, Nana and Aunty Midge a glass of Bucks Fizz each and poured Uncle Roy a Whiskey Mac (oh, they were so effusive in their praise of him - hang on, he’s just fixed you a bloody drink, who’s cooking the FUCKING DINNER?)

Eventually, food was served. A plate was left for the ancestors, with the best bits of the duck, the best Yorkshire Pud, and a candle was lit. We lit the candles on the Yule log and settled down to our wonderful Holy Supper (oh ok, Holy Lunch!). We laughed, we ate our soup, then hubby and I had our paté on toasted soda bread while the Witchlets finished mopping up their soup with hunks of bread they delightedly pulled off the loaf themselves. We ate our roast dinner, and then pulled crackers to the delight of wiggly Witchlets, and finally - and by this time, Witchlet One could barely contain himself - THE YULE LOG.

I’ve never been so full in my entire life. I retired to the sofa with a sleepy Witchlet Two, and we both fell asleep. I dreamt of the house being full, not just of Nana and Aunty Midge and Uncle Roy, but lots of family - somehow I knew they were family - all stood around, laughing, talking, gesticulating, drinking and eating. Somewhere in the background, by the back door, a woman stood, not talking to anyone, just watching. I know she’s the one we don’t talk about. I know she’s my great-grandmother, the one who we were told had abandoned my Nana - although she hadn’t, she was sectioned, and then - from what I’ve managed to find out - committed suicide. She makes me uneasy at first, but then I just realise that she’s not sure how she will be received. I pour her a glass of port, and leave it on the side. She’ll know it’s for her.

Witchlet One bursts into tears, and wakes me up. He doesn’t want the day to end, and he wants me to get up and play, which I do, after gently easing Witchlet Two down onto the sofa from my lap. The dream is still clear as day, so much so that I glance at the back door, looking for her. She’s not there, of course.

We decide that we are all far too exhausted to Wassail the apple tree today. We shall leave that for another day, when we can give it our full (and unexhausted) attention.

Before I go to bed, I leave out a glass of port for Great Grandmother. I think I have to reconcile her with Nana. I’m overwhelmed, so I’m shelving the prospect for a while.


  1. How tragic for your great-grandmother & Nana. Being treated for mental illness is bad enough now, it must have been horrendous for your great-grandmother!

  2. Me, my mother and my Nana all suffered from Post-Natal Depression after having our children. We THINK Great-Grandmother had the same, as by all accounts she was fine before she had my Nana. The whole thing is hazy and hushed up, and my Nana was told that she had abandoned the family when we know she was sectioned. A year later my Great-Grandfather re-married, and we now know she had died (we're making a guess at the suicide, as she was Roman Catholic and she was not buried in consecrated ground). Nana's stepmother was the archetypal nasty stepmother, and Nana never forgave her mother for abandoning her. By the time we had an inkling about Great-Grandmother's real story, my Nana was deep within Alzheimer's, and couldn't understand us. It's a crying shame that in the intervening (nearly) one hundred years, so little is still known about mental illness - instead of intstitutionalising us now, they'll hand out lots of pills. Ooooh, don't get me started, or you'll end up with a rant before you know it!